INS crime lab not meeting case deadlines

The Immigration and Naturalization Service is taking longer to process important forensic cases involving document fraud despite increases in its staff and a new case priority system, according to a report from the General Accounting Office.

The INS Forensic Document Laboratory (FDL) is divided into forensic and intelligence sections. It focuses on detecting document fraud involving suspected terrorists, criminal aliens and illegal immigrants. Forensic examiners study handwriting, fingerprints, suspected counterfeit documents and other material, and often testify in court. Intelligence officers provide technical advice to domestic and foreign government officials and work with them to combat illegal immigration and document fraud. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the laboratory has worked with the FBI to identify and develop evidence against suspected terrorists, including passports recovered from airplane crash sites.

In fiscal 2001, the FDL took seven extra days to close custody cases and 23 additional days to complete criminal cases than it did in fiscal 2000, GAO found. Although the laboratory's staff increased about 11 percent between fiscal 1999 and fiscal 2001, and although the agency made cases involving criminals and individuals in INS custody its highest priority, more case review responsibilities and an inefficient data management system have made it hard to meet deadlines, GAO said.

"According to FDL officials, FDL's ability to process forensic cases in a timely manner has been affected by staff shortages, despite increases in staff levels, and laboratory accreditation requirements," the report, "INS Forensic Document Laboratory: Several Factors Impeded Timeliness of Case Processing," (GAO-02-410) said. Between fiscal 2000 and fiscal 2001, the laboratory's case backlog also increased 38 percent, according to GAO.

Although FDL added staff between fiscal 1999 and fiscal 2001, too many existing employees had supervisory responsibilities, which reduced the time they could spend examining cases. Other employees were unable to conduct forensic examinations until they finished their training programs, according to GAO.

"FDL officials said that a section chief performs almost no casework and that supervisors spend approximately 30 percent of their time on casework and 70 percent of their time on management responsibilities," the report said.

After Sept. 11, Congress gave FDL about $8 million in emergency supplemental funds and authorized 31 additional jobs, including 17 forensic examiner positions, for the lab. But FDL needs time to recruit, hire and train the new staff and "the impact of these increases on case completion time and reduction in pending caseload will not be immediate and remain to be seen," the report said.

Additional case review responsibilities and FDL's obsolete automated database have also contributed to longer case processing times and a greater case backlog. FDL earned professional accreditation from the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors in February 2001, increasing case review standards. The laboratory's four-year-old database does not contain enough data to allow managers to know the exact status of FDL's pending workload or how much time employees spend on each forensic case. FDL's system of setting deadlines also does not always reflect the requester's deadline.

GAO recommended that FDL examiners create deadlines that serve customer needs, but also fit with their own case priority system. The report also urged FDL to collect and analyze data on the total amount of time spent processing forensic cases to help the lab better manage its workload.

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